News and Comment

Is it possible to reach a conclusion about whether Prevent has worked?

Monday 16 July 2012

The recent arrests of suspected terror suspects in both London and the Midlands have reinforced the view that violent extremists pose a significant threat to our safety. While the newspapers tended to agree that the M6 bus arrests were to put it politely a ‘bit of an overreaction’ (some less polite commentators called it a ‘complete shambles’), it does at least tell us that the police are nervous that a real and dangerous threat hangs over Britain as we near the Olympics.

What we don’t know for sure is whether the expensive and sustained focus on preventing violent extremism has worked.

It has now been six years since the first Prevent Strategy, a strategy that the current government has continued, albeit with some significant changes of emphasis. It’s impossible, both because of the mainly qualitative and small scale methods deployed and because policy and approaches have changed so fast, to arrive at a concrete assessment of whether preventing violent extremism has worked. For that, the government will need to follow through on its commitment to more of a systematic national research programme.

OPM has been involved in more than ten evaluations of national and local Prevent strategies and interventions since the first Preventing Violent Extremism Pathfinder were launched in 2007 (OPM evaluated the West London Preventing Violent Extremism Pathfinder). The evidence that is available, whilst far from conclusive, suggests that at least some progress has been made:

  • There appears to be a stronger approach in mosques (once unfairly targeted by certain media outlets as ‘hotbeds’ of radicalisation) to ensuring that extremists do not operate on mosque premises. Certainly in recent research on extremism for a large local authority, people felt confident that the local mosques were currently safe from extremists.
  • Schools have improved their work in enabling young people to understand and debate extremism (see for example OPM’s research for the DfE)
  • There is better co-operation (although at times very strained) between communities and local authorities in acting together to tackle extremism.
  • Some effective targeted work has taken place to work with vulnerable individuals, including those in prison.
  • There is an improved understanding amongst a growing number of public service workers of the risks associated with extremism and how to spot them, achieved through providing training and support to a range of local public service officers and staff.

However, it is impossible to determine – certainly from any research I have seen – whether as a whole the Prevent strategy has reduced the risk of people becoming involved in violent extremism. This is unsurprising, as most evaluators will always caveat their findings with the proviso that very little can be proven as fact – especially in the world of evaluations of complex public policy.

This does lead me to think that the government does need to push on with its commitment – set out in its revised Prevent Strategy – to improve the level of knowledge both about the causes of violent extremism and what works in mitigating the risks of extremism (including the cost benefit assessment of different interventions). This would require both a national assessment of impact and an effort to knit together the many small scale studies that take place to see what, taken together, they say.

In the meantime we know that there will be a heightened fear about the threat of extremists, only abating a little after the Olympics – and the occasional ‘overreaction’ on the part of the police.